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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in brief, weekly installments. Not surprisingly, the limitations of time and space affected his usual style. Because the action is so compressed, and the subject matter so serious, A Tale contains less dialogue, humor, and detailed characterization than the typical Dickens novel. Even so, it has stylistic qualities we think of as "Dickensian," and it makes some stylistic breakthroughs.


Dickens' details have sometimes been labeled "unnecessary." Note that Miss Pross' bonnet is not only like a "Grenadier wooden measure," but like a "great Stilton cheese." Dickens also inserts extended description in the very midst of an action: recall the "gaunt pier glass" standing behind Lucie Manette in the Dover inn. One effect of these techniques is the creation of texture. After reading Dickens' descriptions, it's easy to imagine just how a person or landscape looks.


Frequent repetition of detail, dialogue, and bits of description creates a strong atmosphere. Often the repetition comes in the form of a parallel construction: remember the "best of times, worst of times" paragraph?

One way Dickens establishes character is by means of repeated traits. Nine times out of ten, Stryver is depicted "shouldering." As for Madame Defarge, her sinister style with knitting needles may change your entire conception of the hobby.


Dickens was an avid theatergoer, and at the time of writing A Tale had begun giving public readings. Some of the novel's best and worst stylistic aspects-vivid imagery, heavy melodrama-reflect the fact that Dickens had performance in mind. Consider Lucie's first meeting with her father, and read the journal Dr. Manette hid in his Bastille cell. You'll notice repetitive speeches, unconvincing dialogue, and supercharged emotions. Though unlikely to show up on a modern stage, these elements show the influence of sentimental Victorian drama.


The novel is marked by patterns of imagery that create its special atmosphere and combine with the major themes: the equation of blood with wine, the use of mirrors, and the depiction of water are among the best-developed examples. All are discussed fully in the Story section.


Dickens' extensive use of images makes his style a visual one. If you're a movie buff, you may notice some points in common with film technique. The storming of the Bastille is described by means of rapid images, suggesting associated ideas: "flashing weapons, blazing torches, smoking wagonloads of wet straw... shrieks, volleys, execrations...." Filmmakers call this technique montage.


Throughout his story Dickens lends human qualities to inanimate objects or concepts: Hunger, Saint Antoine, and The Vengeance are a few examples. As you read, consider how personification helps illustrate moral points, and contributes to the atmosphere.


Writing in English, Dickens must put convincing dialogue into the mouths of native French speakers. How does he solve the problem? By literally translating French expressions and sentence structure. Depending on your tastes, the result may seem a bit stilted, or provide just the right "foreign" accent.


The story is told nearly entirely in the third person, by a narrator who has French history and the layout of 18th-century London at his fingertips. He tells us what each character is feeling and thinking, and shifts from the consciousness of one person to another almost at will. Technically speaking, he's an omniscient and intrusive narrator. This means he's ever-present, leading us into moral judgments about history, people, and social practices.

In a few instances the narrator takes a first-person point of view. As "I" or "we," he comments in a personal, introspective way on human nature. One result is to draw us into the fear and excitement of the Darnay party's escape from France.


Dickens' own ideas about content, plus exterior requirements, dictated the form of his novel.


Departing from his usual leisurely approach to storytelling, Dickens tries to develop character through a fast-moving plot. The actions are meant to speak louder than the dialogue. As a result, the novel is tied to its complex plot, and much space is needed simply to tell the story.


Hoping to contrast two great cities, Dickens shifts the action between London and Paris. For many readers the Paris sections are more memorable. Perhaps, having expertly evoked London in other novels, Dickens wanted to concentrate on new territory.


Dickens had to publish A Tale in weekly serial form. He sought to attract and hold a large audience. Reflecting these requirements, nearly all of A Tale's chapters contain action or plot information, and end unresolved, or with a "hook." How do you react to being left dangling at the end of each chapter? Some readers enjoy being drawn in by Dickens' skillfully applied suspense. Others, while recognizing the artistry involved, may feel their emotions are being manipulated.


As you read, count the number of major coincidences in the plot. Your response to the novel may depend on whether or not you can accept, for example, Ernest Defarge turning up whenever a Revolutionary leader is needed. Your hardest task may be swallowing the several coincidences that occur in III, 8. Dickens defended his use of this device. He felt, given a properly developed atmosphere, that coincidences were natural, even inevitable.


Two very different works were the main influences on A Tale of Two Cities . In his preface Dickens credits The Frozen Deep, a melodrama by his friend Wilkie Collins, and The French Revolution, a famous history by another friend, Thomas Carlyle. Drawing inspiration from others doesn't mean that Dickens copied or plagiarized. His own fertile imagination and ability to fuse ideas and select details produced an original, moving novel.

Staged by Dickens, friends, and family as an amateur theatrical, The Frozen Deep centers on a triangle. Two young men, both members of an arctic expedition, love the same woman; one gives up his life so the other may enjoy happiness with her. Here is the germ of Sydney Carton's renunciation of Lucie, and his final sacrifice.

At Thomas Carlyle's instructions, Dickens read through two cartloads of scholarly tomes on the French Revolution. Yet for his novel he returned again and again to Carlyle's "wonderful book." The contrast between reality and unreality owes something to Carlyle, as does the thesis of Sydney Carton's final vision: a new, better age will rise from the ashes of the old.

Among the characters with roots in Carlyle's account are Ernest Defarge, who seems to be a composite of several leaders, and Dr. Manette, who was suggested by an actual, pathetic letter discovered in a cell of the Bastille.

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